Walk through the New Mexico National Guard Museum in Santa Fe with historian-soldier Captain Gabriel Peterman and every artifact has a colorful and often somber story.
One of his favorites, photos and memorabilia from World War II’s 804th Tank Destroyer Battalion formed out of Roswell, “Lightly armed vehicles that were supposed to go out and hunt the German tanks,” he said.
They were deployed to North Africa, Italy and Sicily. They were so successful, they actually ended up arriving on the outskirts of Rome before ‘regular’ army troops, “When they were told they were to stop, and wait for the regular army,” said Peterman, “That way the regular army could go ahead and liberate the first axis capital of World War II.”
The history of the New Mexico National Guard dates all the way back to 1598 when Don Juan Oñate brought in the first large group of colonists. The settlers had to serve as their own part-time soldiers when the need arose – a militia of sorts.
New Mexico volunteer troops are credited with turning the tide in the Civil War Battle at Glorietta Pass. They circled behind a strong Confederate advance and destroyed their supplies.
In the war with Spain, Teddy Roosevelt recruited heavily from the New Mexico Guard and they accompanied him on the charge up San Juan Hill.
When Pancho Villa attacked the community of Columbus, NM in 1916, it was New Mexico Guard troops from Deming who were first on scene. Although it took a little extra time.
“They ran to the armory to get their arms and found that they had no key,” said Peterman, “So they ended up breaking down the door, and in a sense, stealing their own weapons.”
Hundreds of guardsmen from all across the state were activated and spent a year with General Pershing supporting his pursuit of Villa and protecting border, “This was incredibly important for the National Guard,” said Peterman. “This was the first time a large number of troops had been concentrated and been tested and tried in the new tactics.” Peterman added, “It was because of Pershing’s expedition and the training that the New Mexico troops got, it allowed them to seamlessly integrate with the US Army, and allowed them to fulfill their mission when World War I happened, and they were called to the western front.”
Peterman said the New Mexico artillery unit “fired more rounds than any other US unit during that war.”
Peterman, a former college history professor and high school history teacher, knows all the details of a special area of the museum that documents the ordeal of hundreds of New Mexico National Guard troops who were forced to surrender in World War II.
Of the 1800 soldiers in the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery units, only half would survive the Bataan Death March and years in Japanese prison camps.
In the museum are some of the tattered prison clothes the survivors stitched together out of rags, flour sacks and remnants of uniforms.
An example of the burlap jackets fashioned by some of the prisoners “were not something you would want to wear in the Philippine heat and the sun and the rain, but again, this is all they had available to them and some clothing is better than none.”
Artifacts and displays are included from New Mexico Guard service in Korea and the Air Guard’s year fighting in Viet Nam. The Air Guard lost three of its pilots in the skies over Vietnam.
Years later, the Air National Guard was also deployed to other conflicts in the Middle East. Today, the New Mexico Air National Guard serves alongside US Air Force Special Operations units based at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque.
In recent years, hundreds of guard soldiers from all over New Mexico have been deployed, sometimes for a year or more in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.